The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the concept of “magis” which is used often in the context of Jesuit institutions and Ignatian Spirituality. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: There’s More to Magis.”
I’m a perfectionist. As a kid growing up, I was always a star student—that was literally an award my school gave out when I was in kindergarten and first grade—and as a result, I got used to earning straight A’s and winning the praise of teachers. I thought of myself as the best, and I liked it that way.
That attitude of perfectionism crept into my moral and spiritual life, as well—with troublesome consequences. I wanted to get things just right in the way I related to God and others, and when I didn’t, I got frustrated. At times, my desire to be perfect led me to hide some of my own sins and failings from myself—through mentally explaining away or rationalizing what I had done—because I didn’t want to acknowledge my own imperfections. I can remember as well trying to talk around some of my sins when going to confession. As if I could actually hide anything from God!
As a Jesuit who has been in formation for nearly eight years—which means eight years of prayer, daily examens, and spiritual direction—I’ve come to recognize the problems perfectionism has created in my life. It spawned habits of procrastination—if I couldn’t do something as well as I desired, then I just put it off instead of trying—and also led me to moments of discouragement and distress at not having achieved what I desired to achieve. I can specifically remember moments in my first year of teaching when a class didn’t go the way I wanted, and I found myself wondering, “Am I really cut out for this teaching thing?” Thankfully, my spiritual director encouraged me and helped me see the flawed logic of my thinking.
If we are to know a tree by its fruits (cf. Matt 12:33), then perfectionism is undeniably a bad tree. A life of faith that expresses itself in perfectionism is neither Christian nor life-giving. At the same time, however, I don’t want to settle for a mediocre faith that simply shoots for the bare minimum, since that doesn’t seem quite right, either. After all, Jesus calls us to a certain kind of perfection. But how can I understand that call properly?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets a new and incredibly high standard of conduct for his disciples and followers, which is no less than perfection. After stating that he has “come not to abolish but to fulfill” the law (Matt 5:17), Jesus launches into a series of statements that follow the pattern, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . . .” In each of these statements, Jesus shows that merely following the old law to the letter—the scribes and Pharisees’ idea of perfection—is not enough. Jesus’ disciples must go even further; instead of merely avoiding murder, we must not even be angry at our brethren, and instead of merely loving our neighbors and hating our enemies, we must love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matt 5:21–22, 43–44). Ultimately, we are urged, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
Over the years, I’ve heard a few preachers try to de-emphasize Jesus’ command to be perfect as the Father is perfect. Usually, they have one of two concerns: either to discourage people from adopting a Pelagian attitude that says, “If I can do X, then I’ll be perfect” (which, to be honest, is a dangerous attitude we ought to avoid), or else to save people from falling into despair when they see that they aren’t perfect and never will be. As important as these two concerns are—since neither a Pelagian attitude nor a hopeless despair are Christian ways of looking at the world—I’ve always been dissatisfied with attempts to explain away or water down Jesus’ command to be perfect as the Father is perfect. Frankly, that’s partly because, as a perfectionist, I lean toward the Pelagian way of thinking. Yet at the same time, we can’t simply set Scripture aside (cf. John 10:35). So what can we do?
This is where I find the Ignatian concept of the magis helpful. Time and again throughout his letters and in the Jesuit Constitutions, Ignatius tells Jesuits that we ought to seek the “greater service and praise of God our Lord” (Constitutions 133). By framing our goal as an open comparative, Ignatius indicates that the end pursued by the Society of Jesus is not a static endpoint, but a dynamic and continually evolving process. In essence, Ignatius takes on the viewpoint of St. Paul:
Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13b–14)
This way of looking at the magis shatters my perfectionist ideas of what Jesus means when he says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If I ever think that I’ve arrived, that I’ve finally achieved perfection and become the best possible Jesuit, teacher, community member, etc.—the magis shakes me out of that way of thinking. I can always be more loving, more Christlike, more faithful to my mission. I can seek to love my students better by continually tweaking my lesson plans and learning to listen to their hopes and concerns. And by the logic of the magis, when I realize that I’ve fallen short, it isn’t a cause for despair but a calling to get back up and to strive for deeper fidelity.
While thinking about Jesus’ call to be perfect in terms of the magis can be exhausting—there are definitely moments when I selfishly wish I could finally get things figured out and not have to keep learning or growing in self-gift—it’s ultimately a much more fulfilling and interesting way to live. If perfection were achievable as a static endpoint, then life would essentially stop there. But since God himself is not static—as indicated by the Ignatian concept of the Deus semper maior, the ever-greater God, the “God of surprises” who is always beyond our imagining and our narrow conceptions of him—coming to know and love God is necessarily going to be a continual process. And thank goodness for that! The “Star Student” award didn’t mean I had learned everything and could put away my books as a first grader. Even more so, then, none of us can ever stop learning to love and serve the Lord!